A lot of rhetoric is associated with innovation in businesses today.

We often hear statements like, “Innovation is the lifeblood of business”, “Innovate or die” and a myriad of Albert Einstein quotes. Despite this cynicism, the times we live in today are characterised by innovation that is disrupting nations, industries and companies on a daily basis.

Innovation can be defined as simply a new idea or an application of better solutions that meet a new or even an existing need. And a culture of innovation can be inspired from different sources as you can see by the models below. Most businesses highly value innovation and yet they execute with varying degrees of success. So given it’s an enabler of business growth for businesses of all shapes and sizes how can you build an innovation culture for your business?

The 5 models of innovation (Source: Scott Cook, CEO Intuit)

  1. The lone genius
  2. The boss is a genius
  3. Copy competitors’ inventions
  4. Cluster the geniuses in a lab
  5. Make your people the geniuses

Which of the above defines your organisation? Hopefully number five! If it’s your desire to create a culture of innovation, then only the fifth model can apply. It’s every employee’s job. More importantly, it’s the job of leadership to provide the autonomy for employees to create, take risks, launch, fail and win.

6 traits and behaviours that will help you build a culture of innovation

  1. Restlessness
    The best leaders are restless. Everyday, they can’t wait to get to work to try something new, to make things better. A culture of innovation is one that should leverage this leadership trait so that the entire business is defined by an element of restlessness. It should be ok to challenge team members including leaders, to look at the status quo and to have a hunger for a better solution. This should extend to recruitment of new hires – ensuring new staff members have these attitudes and can demonstrate how they’ve applied their restlessness for innovative outcomes. Keep pushing for better, so that you don’t settle for good.

  2. Trusted to fail AND win
    Employees need to believe that they are trusted to have a go. Trusted even in the face of risk – whether that is emotional risk or simply the financial risk the business faces. Part of gaining employees trust is removing constraints, with leaders backing ideas with fewer rules. And of course this means that there will be failures along the way. A zero tolerance of failure is certain way to kill the idea that employees are trusted to innovate. Perhaps leaders can inspire trust from employees by sharing their failures and show their humility? Of course wins need to be celebrated (something not always done). Celebrating failures doesn’t seem quite natural, however they can be used as terrific ways to build team engagement and commitment in safe, controlled environments.

  3. Cross-functional, structured collaboration
    Culture is developed by groups of people not individuals. Structuring innovation into teams made up of cross-functional members forces new relationships (with a side benefit being improved communication). Schedule structured innovation into their days, weeks and year with starting points for problem solving. Try not to force complicated processes onto a group but do provide guidelines and do work to the individual and team strengths. A great way to engage is to gamify the experience to build empathy, to unleash creativity and get everyone’s hands dirty. Along the way why not add restrictions to the starting points to extend problem solving and the development of creative solutions. Appointing someone to co-ordinate this process is critical.

  4. Questioning why not?
    So often in businesses and life for that matter we hear the word NO. Creating a culture of innovation requires us to be more open-minded. We want employees to have the freedom to be curious, as this is the starting point for possibility. Try removing constraints, encouraging bold thinking and rewarding those that come forward as contributors. Employ structured exercises like hackathons for getting inspired and taking off the ‘blinkers’. These sessions are great ‘signposts’ for employees to believe that it’s ok to question why not. The end goal? An inquisitive mind comes to work on an everyday basis.

  5. By leadership example
    Open mindedness requires leadership of the business to truly embrace diversity of thinking. And they can do this by creating the structures for it to exist. This is pure leadership and can only come from the top. Perhaps this is exhibited by an innovation manifesto? Do you coach line managers on innovation and how your company does it? Do you empower employees to call out closed minded thinking? These are examples of initiatives you could put in place as a leader, however most importantly you need to lead by example. Machines can’t do it, people can – and after all isn’t leadership all about engaging your people?

  6. Do it everyday
    Culture is an everyday thing. If you are looking to start building a culture of innovation, then it starts with behaving in an innovative way, everyday. While this may not be an easy to do, small incremental actions are the ideal way to start. This way you are more likely to change and enhance beliefs and values, which over time will embed innovation into your culture. So get out there and leverage your stakeholders – employees, community, shareholders, suppliers. They are passionate about your business and see you and your business from a distance and a perspective you don’t have.

The saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is so true. That’s because culture is about what you do. Innovation is also about what you do and it’s something everyone can be a part of in the process of building sustainable business growth.

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